Whaam! (1963) is a two-canvas painting based on an image from the comic book strip All-American Men of War, published by DC Comics in February 1962. The left canvas depicts an American fighter plane firing a missile that hits an approaching enemy plane seen on the right canvas. The bright yellow letters ‘WHAAM!’ blaze out of the exploding airplane, describing the impact of the attack. The artist got the idea for Whaam! while working on Tex! (1962), a smaller, single panel painting that has a similar composition of a plane shooting at an enemy aircraft. The artist explained the idea of the two-canvas painting in a letter he wrote in 1967: “I remember being concerned with the idea of doing almost separate paintings having a little hint of compositional connection, and each having slightly separate stylistic character. Of course, there is the humorous connection of one panel shooting the other.”
In the painting, Lichtenstein imitates the tradition of printed comic strips in the thick black lines that outline areas of primary colors, and the uniform areas of Ben-Day dots in the purple shading of the fighter plane and the sky in the background. He found this style of comic book strips and cartoons particularly appealing because it allowed him to depict emotionally charged, dramatic subject matters, like love and war, in a detached and calculated manner. In his paintings, Lichtenstein drew inspiration from popular imagery in advertising, comic books, and cartoons. Although his paintings have an element of appropriation, the artist transformed these images in his paintings. The ‘low’ mass-produced image from a comic book is transferred to the realm of high art in the traditional medium of a large-scale easel painting.
During the first half of the 1960s, Lichtenstein created multiple war paintings such as Bratatat! (1963), Okay Hot-Shot, Okay! (1963) and As I Opened Fire (1964). Like Whaam! these were inspired by comic book images that glorified military action and heroism. In Lichtenstein’s paintings, these images become ironic and juvenile. Lichtenstein who served in the US Army between 1943 and 1946, painted these war paintings at a time when the Vietnam War was gaining steam. By emphasizing the irony and ridiculousness of the scenes, the artist deconstructs military heroism and glorified action-packed violence. In a 1963 interview, Lichtenstein stated: “The heroes depicted in comic books are fascist types, but I don’t take them seriously in these paintings – maybe there is a point in not taking them seriously, a political point.” Therefore, paintings like Whaam! can be interpreted as artworks that emphasize the foolishness and absurdity of war.
The complexity of the Whaam! lies in its contrasts and dualities – an emotionally charged subject presented in a detached style, a commercial image placed in a fine art context, and a mass-produced image becoming a unique artwork in the form of a painting. These dualities were characteristics of the Pop art and were explored by Lichtenstein and his contemporaries, Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg.